Fr Martin McGee OSB
My interest in dialogue and friendship with Muslims developed unexpectedly. In January 1997 I read an interview in the English Catholic weekly, The Tablet, with Msgr Henri Teissier, Archbishop of Algiers. His bravery and humility, as he faced death daily during the Algerian civil war, impressed me deeply. Several months later, out of the blue, I decided to write him a short letter of support and then I forgot completely about it.
To my great surprise, I received an answer a few months later written by a former student of Worth Abbey School (I am a monk of Worth Abbey), Fr John MacWilliam, a White Father and missionary in Algeria.
Fr John had been given the daunting task of re-establishing the White Fathers’ presence in Tizi Ouzou, a Berber city south of Algiers, following the assassination on December 27, 1994 of the four White Fathers living there.
Out of this connection my interest in Christian-Muslim friendship unexpectedly grew, a wonderful gift of the Holy Spirit which has led me to write Dialogue of the Heart: Stories of Christian-Muslim Encounter (Veritas, 2015), a book which seeks to inspire Christians and Muslims to open their hearts and minds to each other.
In 1996 on the night of March 26/27 seven monks from the Trappist monastery of Tibhirine, 96km south of Algiers, were kidnapped by Muslim fundamentalists, and 56 days later, on May 21, all of them were beheaded. Miraculously two of the monks, Jean-Pierre and Amédée, were overlooked by the kidnappers and escaped the fate of their brothers.
The inspiring witness of the Tibhirine monks came to the attention of the world thanks to the Xavier Beauvois film Of Gods and Men, winner of the Grand Prix at the Cannes film festival in 2010. This film captured the imagination of countless people, many of whom had no interest in religion or religious affiliation. They were above all amazed by the close friendship which the monks had established with their Muslim neighbours.
I have visited the two Tibhirine survivors (one of the survivors, Fr Amédée, died in 2008), who relocated to Morocco, on six occasions and was warmly welcomed by them. What is the secret of Tibhirine’s spiritual radiance? The charism of Tibhirine is, I think, to be found in the quality of the relationships which the monks have established with their Muslim neighbours.
Their message can be summed up in one word: ‘friendship’. As Fr Jean-Pierre Schumacher, one of the two Tibhirine survivors, remarks: “The example of the brothers in their relationships with people, with Muslims, shows that one can become real brothers, in communion, together, in depth and not only on the surface. In depth before God. Certain people have lived this. It’s not uncommon.”
These relationships, however, are founded on a life of prayer. According to Fr Jean-Pierre, “fidelity to our prayer times is the secret of our friendship with the Muslims”. Muslims who pray publicly five times a day easily understand the value of a life centred on prayer.
This was the very reason which prompted the late Msgr Hubert Michon, Archbishop of Rabat, to invite the monks of Tibhirine in the 1980s to set up a dependent house in his archdiocese. A “real spiritual dialogue”, he wrote, could only develop with Muslims if they could see that the Christian community contained people of faith and prayer.
In a homily given at Valence Cathedral in France on May 28, 2006, to mark the tenth anniversary of the death of the monks, the present Archbishop of Rabat, Msgr Vincent Landel, drew our attention to the message which the refounded Tibhirine community at Midelt has for us: “Do we not have to understand more clearly, as our brothers liked to repeat: ‘We are people of prayer in the midst of other people of prayer.’
“What humility is required of us if we are to reach the point of truly believing this; Christians, priests, religious, Trappists, we haven’t got a monopoly on this ‘heart-to-heart’ with God. Our Muslim brothers and sisters are also people of prayer; they are also searching for God.”
It would be quite easy to think that dialogue with other faiths is something which is reserved for theologians and not within reach of the ordinary believer or parish clergyman. The Vatican document of 1991, Dialogue and Proclamation, (n.42), dispels this misunderstanding by making a helpful distinction between four different levels of dialogue.
Firstly, there is the dialogue of life where people “live in an open and neighbourly spirit” and share with each other the joys and sorrows of daily life.
Secondly, there is the dialogue of action where people of different faiths co-operate for the common good of society.
Thirdly, there is the dialogue of theological exchange where experts seek to deepen their understanding and appreciation of each other’s faith and dispel prejudice and misunderstanding.
Finally there is the dialogue of religious experience, where the participants seek to share the spiritual riches of their respective prayer and scriptural traditions. The different levels of interreligious dialogue outlined above make it clear that it is possible for the non-expert to make a contribution, especially at the level of the dialogue of life which is founded on friendship. To engage in this form of interreligious dialogue requires “an open and neighbourly spirit,” a willingness in other words to recognise that whatever our religious differences we all share a common humanity.
This insight is not just shared by Christians but has been lived out by many ordinary Tunisians who courageously risked their lives to save innocent tourists from the IS inspired gunman, Seifeddine Rezgui. One man, Ben Aisha, put it succinctly: “You have to understand, I don’t save them [guests] because they are foreigners, but because we are all the same. A Tunisian, an English, an Italian, we have the same body, we have the same soul, we have the same dreams, we are the same people.”
On October, 28, 2015 we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, the conciliar declaration which threw open the doors of the Catholic Church to people of other faiths. Soon after the first World Day of Prayer for Peace in Assisi, Italy, on October 27, 1986, Pope John Paul II addressed the Roman Curia and spelt out unambiguously his thinking on interreligious dialogue.
One can sense his passion for dialogue in the following quotation from this important address: “There is only one divine plan for every single human being who comes into this world (cf. Jn 1:9), one single origin and goal, whatever may be the colour of his skin, the historical and geographical framework within which he happens to live and act, or the culture in which he grows up and expresses himself. The differences are a less important element, when confronted with the unity which is radical, fundamental and decisive.”
The message of the Tibhirine martyrs for us is so simple that we can easily overlook it. We have to learn above all to get to know our Muslim neighbours, to rejoice in our common humanity, to see God’s face in them. In this way we will learn to live with difference and to be enriched by it. Our surest hope for the future lies in walking together along the path of friendship.
Fr Martin McGee is a monk of Worth Abbey, West Sussex and a native of Newport, Co. Mayo.